Carnival Reveals Much about Gender, Sexuality, and Culture in Brazil

March 6, 2013

It’s a combination of Halloween, an Olympic opening ceremony, New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebration, and a massive music concert. For nearly five full days, streets are crowded with people dancing samba, selling snacks, dressing in costumes, and looking for potential romantic partners. This is Carnival, Brazil’s world-famous pre-Lent celebration. Although Carnival (often touted as “the biggest party on Earth”) is an absolutely stunning experience for all of the senses, the celebration provides insight into various aspects of Brazilian culture.

While experiencing the lively Carnival on the streets, I was immediately struck by the number of sexually controversial costumes. It is very common for men to dress in drag (Disney characters and Japanese anime are popular choices), and to even wear body suits with exaggerated female anatomy. Women, on the other hand, are expected to dress in traditional female clothing, and commonly in revealing outfits or swimsuits.

When women wear costumes, they nearly always dress as stereotypically “feminine” figures such as fairies, princesses, or butterflies. In other words, it is socially acceptable for men to violate traditional gender roles, but the same privilege is not granted to women. Indeed, after spending several weeks in Rio, I also realized that the strict division of gender identity is even visible in seemingly mundane aspects of life. For example, it is considered “feminine” to sit on towels at the beach, and men are expected to show their manliness by sitting on bare sand.

However, in stark contrast to this conservative attitude towards gender roles, Brazil seems to be very liberal with regards to sexuality. Despite being home to the world’s largest number of Catholics (and an increasing number of evangelical Protestants), Brazil has made sexual education a major priority. Indeed, contraceptives are readily available, and public service announcements routinely detail the health risks of polygamous relationships and contracting STDs. Also, street parties (known as blocos in Portuguese) during Carnival are notorious for their widespread public kissing (usually between complete strangers), and the official Rio Carnival Wikipedia page even lists certain blocos as being “good for kissing.” Unfortunately, sexual harassment of women is an alarmingly common occurrence at these events, as well.

As a devout Muslim man from a relatively conservative small town in Connecticut, I was very uncomfortable with the sexual aspects of Carnival culture. When speaking with some of my Brazilian friends, I also realized that I was not alone in feeling out-of-place; in fact, a large number of Cariocas (residents of Rio) actually leave the city for two weeks during Carnival in order to wholly escape from the insanity.

However, I also realized that attending Carnival was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I didn’t want my entire Carnival experience to be tainted by a few uncomfortable blocos. As a result, I decided to attend blocos listed as “family-friendly.” I enjoyed these immensely, as I could see small children, their parents, and even the elderly dancing samba and singing marchinhas (traditional songs) far away from transvestites and sexually aggressive men. My personal favorite was the Sargento Pimenta (Sgt. Pepper) bloco, where DJs remixed Beatles songs with samba beats to produce amazing dance rhythms.

I also had a great time at the Samba Parade, an aspect of Carnival unique to Rio de Janeiro and well-known throughout the world. The event occurs in the Sambodrome, a massive stadium built for the express purpose of hosting a series of parades designed by various samba schools. The Sambodrome is unused for almost the entire year, but is packed with over 90,000 spectators when the schools perform during the Sunday and Monday preceding Ash Wednesday.

The samba schools (representing various districts of Rio) must base their entire parade on a single theme, and are judged on their theme song, dancers, massive floats, and costumes, among other criteria. As a result, samba schools work on their parade for an entire year, spending mind-boggling sums of money in order to hire choreographers, musicians, art designers, and even parade consultants! This year, the winning team Vila Isabel provided an in-depth representation of life in the countryside, complete with depictions of farming, plagues, weddings, and even bedbugs. I was surprised to discover that there was a relatively paltry monetary prize for victory; instead, samba schools mainly competed for glory and prestige.

By participating in Carnival, I realized that Brazil, like many other countries, is a mixture of contradictions. For example, the double standard of gender expression highlights Brazil’s tension between the country’s conservative, chauvinistic past and its status as a growing economy with an increasingly liberal youth. Also, the grandiosity, massive expenditure, and sheer spectacle of the Samba Parade is strikingly different from the common-man’s singing and dancing in street blocos. I hope that my next several months in Brazil will provide me with even more interesting insights into the culture of this amazing country, and the aptly-named cidade maravilhosa (marvelous city) of Rio de Janeiro.

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